Does Your Voice Belong To You?

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Anthony Bourdain at the 2015 Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

A new documentary about Anthony Bourdain is going to come out. And the New Yorker reports that the filmmakers used artificial intelligence to re-create Bourdain’s voice and used it to simulate Bourdain reading his own emails.

There is a moment at the end of the film’s second act when the artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, is reading aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him: “Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious” Choe begins reading, and then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: “. . . and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail. Throughout the film, Neville and his team used stitched-together clips of Bourdain’s narration pulled from TV, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks. “But there were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, “I created an A.I. model of his voice.” In a world of computer simulations and deepfakes, a dead man’s voice speaking his own words of despair is hardly the most dystopian application of the technology. But the seamlessness of the effect is eerie.”

Years ago there were little debates about whether it was appropriate to use existing footage of deceased stars for commercial purposes. The estate of Fred Astaire, with permission from his widow, allowed footage of him dancing to be used in a 1997 Dirt Devil commercial during the Super Bowl.  Was it right to use his performance for a commercial project he never could have imagined or approved?

Well, if our society ever settled on an answer, it did so without really thinking about it.

Now, we go to the next step of manufacturing the voice and footage — not just for commercial purposes, but creative ones. Personally, I think this should not be done.  I’m sure there are thousands of complicating objections to sort through — humans can produce convincing imitations and use them for parody, so why not this? But individuals own their own voice, and conjuring it this way should be illegal.

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